How to make a restaurant menu in 7 proven steps

October 17, 2019 • 10 minutes

Lindsay Ott Wilcox
Lindsay Ott Wilcox
Award-winning writer and creative director at Buzztime. Her mission is to hook up bar and restaurant owners with tips she has gathered from over a decade of foodservice research and writing.

It may only be a page or two, but a successful restaurant menu takes major effort behind the scenes. Dishes are tasted, tested, and retooled. Prices are calculated for maximum profit. Each word is carefully chosen for customer appeal (after all, the right words can increase sales up to 27%…see step #6). Even a menu’s fonts and paper weight are considered.

The result of all these efforts? Your restaurant menu can become a «silent seller» on steroids.

Cloud POS for restaurants

Poster POS

Use Poster to make sales faster, manage your inventory and finances.

Poster POS

If you want to take your menu to greatness, start thinking like a menu engineer. That’s someone who takes a calculated — even scientific — approach to making a restaurant menu. Watch the webinar with Michael Wagner and Elsa Barrueta talking about menu engineering techniques. Or you can look through the article by Lindsay Ott Wilcox, an award-winning writer and creative director, with recent honors from Graphic Design USA and the New York State Broadcasters Association, and find out what it'll take you to make a best-selling menu.

Step 1. Create a restaurant menu like a pro

The very first step involves a time-tested restaurant menu engineering principle. Back in 1982, Michigan State University researchers Michael Kasavana and Donald Smith created a method for assessing which menu items should stay, and which should go.

Their tactic is based on two variables: profitability and popularity. Profitability means you’ve built in a high margin for a dish. Popularity refers to how many people order the dish. Here’s how to use the ultimate menu engineering hack…

STARS: Profitable, Popular Let the stars of your restaurant menu shine on! Analyze these bestsellers and try to create more dishes like them.

**PLOW HORSES: Unprofitable, Popular
**You don’t want to remove these dishes. However, strive to lower your food costs or slightly increase their price.

**PUZZLES Profitable, Unpopular
**Before ditching low-selling restaurant menu items, try promoting them. Could you move them to a more prominent place on your menu? What about using digital signage software to promote these dishes on your own restaurant TVs?

**DOGS Unprofitable, Unpopular
**Don’t overthink the dogs. Get rid of them ASAP — and don’t look back.

Now that you’ve ditched your dogs, there’s room on your restaurant menu for some new flavors. The next step in developing your menu is to seek out inspiration for those new or improved dishes. For that, head to the headlines! What are customers craving? Which ingredients are trending on Instagram?

It’s tempting to jump on the latest culinary bandwagon, adding the latest «it» dish or ingredient to your restaurant menu. However, any menu engineer will you tell you: above all, stay true to your concept. That means if you run an Italian restaurant, you won’t put uber-trendy poke bowls on the menu…ever.

Still, it’s important to try a little trendiness on your restaurant menu. Just stay in your lane. As an Italian restaurant, you could embrace plant-based proteins, which came in at #8 on a list of the top 140 trends on the National Restaurant Association’s 2019 What’s Hot Chef Survey. Alongside traditional meatballs, offer a vegan-friendly option made with the Impossible Meat ground beef substitute.

Trends aren’t the only way to refresh a restaurant menu. Go deeper into your concept. Again, if you own an Italian restaurant, could you explore a new region of Italy? How about a «Taste of Tuscany» or an exploration of Southern Italian flavors from Naples and Sardinia.

Step 3. Write a «creative brief» for your chefs

Once you know which trends and themes to integrate into your restaurant menu, the next step is getting your culinary team involved in creating or revamping existing menu items. The creative brief strategy will ensure just that.

When an advertising agency is tasked with coming up with a logo, advertisement or any other deliverable, a project manager writes a creative brief. The brief gives the «creative team» of graphic designers, illustrators, and writers, a road map to follow — and guidelines to stick to — as they explore ideas.

Take the same approach with your own creative team of chefs! Write up a short brief that includes what you’re looking for in your updated restaurant menu. Back to our Italian restaurant example, a brief might task chefs with creating 2-3 new plant-based main dishes with a Tuscan influence. The creative brief must also include a budget. Give your chefs a cap on food costs per restaurant menu item. Challenge them to get creative and explore alternative ingredients — or time- and cost-saving prep methods.

Step 4. Test, taste, and trim

During the fourth step, you’ll select the dishes that make it to your final restaurant menu. Ever wonder exactly how many dishes that should be? Research suggests that fine dining restaurants aim for 7-10 options per category (category refers to appetizers, main dishes, desserts, sides, etc.). If you go beyond 10, your restaurant menu could begin to overwhelm — instead of please — your customers.

So how do you trim down the number of dishes per category? Let the tasting begin. Many restaurants are now creating test kitchen panels — and you should, too. Invite 8-10 of your most loyal customers or self-professed foodies to a complimentary tasting session. Let them try out the dishes you’ve narrowed down for your restaurant menu while providing anonymous written feedback.

Step 5. Price your restaurant menu for profit

After completing step 4, you should now have a complete list of restaurant menu items. Step 5 involves calculating food cost for each recipe and pricing your menu items for profit. The food cost percentage formula will tell you how much of your sales for the week are going towards covering food costs, and how much is left over as gross profit. Also, don't forget about calculating prime cost in a restaurant. Check if the POS system for restaurants you chose has the features allowing to use it as menu management and food costing software.

Most restaurant menu gurus will advise you to use the typical food cost formula in reverse to build in a healthy margin on every food item. Here’s how:

Step A) Add up the food costs (what you pay your distributor) for ingredients needed to make ONE portion of each dish

Step B) Divide the total for that dish by 30% or .3

Step C) The result is what you should charge for that restaurant menu item, with 30% of the sale price covering your food costs, and 60% going towards gross profit.


Step A) Food costs for a hamburger and fries are $3.

Step B) $3 / .3 = $10

Step C) You should charge $10 for the hamburger and fries, with $3 covering your food costs, and $7 going to gross profit.

Cloud POS for restaurants

Poster POS

Use Poster to make sales faster, manage your inventory and finances.

Poster POS

Step 6. Write out menu titles and descriptions

Your work as a restaurant menu engineer is just beginning at this point. In step 6, you’ll deploy top-secret strategies that only the experts know as you write your menu. Just focus on writing the menu, design will come in step 7.

For example, simply by giving a menu item a more descriptive title, you can increase sales of that item by up to 27% according to research by the University of Illinois.

As for restaurant menu descriptions, a little storytelling goes a long way. Additional research shows that you can also increase sales by referencing family, patriotism, and home-made efforts. An easy way to try this restaurant menu engineering strategy would be to call out any family recipes, highlight the national origins of a dish, or talk about any hand-made ingredients.

Finally, how you write out the prices on your restaurant menu makes a major impact. Want to increase sales by 8%? Cornell University research suggests that you simply remove dollar signs and double zeroes from your menu. Dollar signs remind customers they are spending money, and double zeroes make costs seem larger (9 versus 9.00, which is subconsciously read as $900).

Step 7. Design with profits in mind

Once you have a finalized text document, step 7 involves the graphic design of your restaurant menu. You’ve got options on how to make a menu for a restaurant! You could hire a graphic designer, or seek out free restaurant menu templates that match your restaurant menu ideas and can be customized.

Either way, pay close attention to the look and presentation of your menu. Because it matters. Take fonts, for example. Research has shown that when restaurant menus use fancier typography, customers perceive that dishes took more effort to create. Therefore, they’re more willing to spend more for these «labor-intensive» dishes.

Another example of intentional restaurant menu design involves how you arrange dishes. Never do it by price (from least expensive to most). This invites customers to compare prices, instead of focusing on the options in front of them. You can also highlight high-margin items with a different color, or a thin box around them — anything to draw the eye to these menu stars!

One word of caution at this point: Don’t let all your restaurant menu engineering efforts go to waste by slipping a plastic cover over the menu. It’s just tacky. Instead, use printed paper menus or even go digital with tablets.

Now you’re ready for the final step…printing your picture-perfect menu! Choose paper stock with a decent weight. Or, you can always use an on-trend clipboard and get away with a lesser-quality paper.

If you think your work is done at this point, think again. Restaurant menu engineering is an ongoing process. You’ll want to revisit your menu at least once per quarter to keep things fresh, and to be on the look out for those menu dogs. Here’s wishing the best for your restaurant as you write the next chapter in menu success!

Sign up for our newsletter

Useful tips, articles, webinars about the restaurant business

Double-check the email address you have written